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Predicting the Top 3 NFL Rookies at Every Position in 2012

Alessandro MiglioFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2017

Predicting the Top 3 NFL Rookies at Every Position in 2012

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    Predicting rookie production can be tricky business. Opportunity typically trumps talent for them—rookies will not perform much sitting on the bench, no matter how much talent they possess. 

    Some positions are clear—after all, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are locks to start—but the situation is cloudy for many others.

    Which rookies landed in the best situation to be the top producers at their position? Click ahead to find out.

Quarterback

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    Top Performer: Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins

    Even though he was the second quarterback taken, Griffin will be the top performer at his position this year.

    The main reason for this is his supporting cast. Washington has a good group of receivers (Pierre Garcon, Josh Morgan, Leonard Hankerson and Santana Moss) and running backs (Roy Helu and Evan Royster) to help take the pressure off Griffin as a rookie.

    If we want to delve into the fantasy perspective, Griffin's running ability will be a big reason why he will outscore Luck.

     

    Second Best: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts

    When the Colts drafted Luck, he did not have much in the way of weaponry. He must have felt much better two rounds later after Indianapolis drafted his college teammate Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen.

    Indianapolis has a suspect offensive line, however, and it did not address it effectively in free agency or the draft. This will be a problem for Luck as a rookie. 

    This should not worry Colts fans, however—Peyton Manning had a rough go as a rookie in a similar situation back in 1998.

     

    Bronze: Brandon Weeden, Cleveland Browns

    Third place was almost a toss-up between Weeden and Ryan Tannehill. The former is all but guaranteed a starting gig to start the season, however; the Browns did not spend a first-round pick on a 28-year-old rookie to have him sit behind an ineffective Colt McCoy. There is a good chance Tannehill begins the season as the backup behind Matt Moore.

Running Back

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    Top Performer: Trent Richardson, Cleveland Browns

    The former Alabama star is going to obliterate the rookie competition. Richardson finds himself in the best possible situation as the lead back in Cleveland.

    Considering that Richardson is the best running back to come out of college since Adrian Peterson by many accounts, there is little doubt he will be the top rookie producer barring injury.

     

    Second Best: Doug Martin, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Three words: pound the rock. Greg Schiano is known for running the ball, which means plenty of carries for Doug Martin despite the presence of LeGarrette Blount.

    Martin is an all-around back, unlike the one-dimensional Blount. This means he will see more playing time than Blount by virtue of being on the field during passing situations.

     

    Bronze: Ronnie Hillman, Denver Broncos

    It was surprising the Broncos chose Hillman over the likes of Lamar Miller, but they have specific plans in mind for the rookie out of San Diego State.

    Hillman finds himself in a nice spot playing the pass-catching back in a Denver offense that features Peyton Manning.

Fullback

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    Top Performer: Rhett Ellison, Minnesota Vikings

    Ellison was the first fullback taken in the 2012 NFL draft.

    Hailing from USC, Ellison is a big man at 6'5". He was actually a tight end for three years before switching to fullback, making him a versatile enough player to see the field more often as a rookie. 

    He will likely see most of his playing time as a special teamer but could play some H-back for the Vikings as a rookie.

     

    Second Best: Bradie Ewing, Atlanta Falcons

    The second and final fullback drafted was Ewing out of Wisconsin. 

    Ewing is more of a traditional pass-catching fullback than Ellison. Considering the only other fullback on Atlanta's roster is Mike Cox, Montee Ball's former lead blocker might see some serious playing time.

    The former Badger will also see some time as a special teamer—he was named Wisconsin's special teams player of the year.

     

    Bronze: Taylor Gentry, Kansas City Chiefs

    Being that only a handful of fullbacks were picked up in undrafted free agency, this is truly a dart-throwing moment. 

    Gentry has the best shot of sticking to an NFL roster by virtue of his special teams play—like Ewing, Gentry was his team's special teams player of the year, for North Carolina State. The Chiefs do not have a fullback on the roster other than Gentry either, with Le'Ron McClain having gone to the Chargers.

Wide Receiver

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    Top Performer: Rueben Randle, New York Giants

    Landing on a team with a great shot to start opposite Hakeem Nicks and alongside Victor Cruz will do wonders for Randle, who inexplicably fell to the back of the second round.

    The big rookie was actually a consideration for the Giants with their first-round pick, and they were thrilled when they got him with the final pick of the second round. Randle shores up the receiver position after Mario Manningham's departure, and as a rookie he may be better than Manningham ever was for the Giants.

    With all the attention defenses will have to pay to Nicks and Cruz, and with Eli Manning throwing him the ball, Randle is in for a nice rookie season.

     

    Second Best: Alshon Jeffery, Chicago Bears

    Yes, Jeffery played overweight during his senior season, but does that indicate he will not be productive in the NFL? He also suffered from poor quarterback play as a senior, and he will get a significant upgrade in Jay Cutler.

    The former Gamecock will line up opposite newly acquired Brandon Marshall, immeasurably improving Chicago's wide receiving corps. If the Bears can get Forte signed to a long-term deal, Cutler will have a good arsenal at his disposal, and Jeffery will benefit from the presence of the others on the field.

     

    Bronze: Michael Floyd, Arizona Cardinals

    Apologies to Justin Blackmon, the first receiver taken in the draft, but Floyd fell into a better situation playing opposite Larry Fitzgerald. He also does not have Blaine Gabbert throwing the ball to him, though it remains to be seen if Kevin Kolb or John Skelton can be significantly better.

    Floyd was arguably the best receiver talent in the draft—his off-field issues may have cost him top-five overall standing. Playing alongside Fitzgerald will do wonders for his production with Arizona.

Tight End

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    Top Performer: Coby Fleener, Indianapolis Colts

    Not only do the Colts get a top-three rookie performer at quarterback, but they get the top guy at tight end here with Coby Fleener.

    Rookie tight ends tend to disappoint from a production standpoint—just look at Lance Kendricks' numbers from last season after a promising preseason—but Fleener will post solid numbers with Luck at quarterback.

    For one, Luck does not need to build chemistry with Fleener—the familiarity and trust is already there from college. For another, Fleener could be the Colts' best receiving weapon with Reggie Wayne on the decline and Austin Collie an injury concern.

     

    Second Best: Michael Egnew, Miami Dolphins

    Miami fans have been clamoring for an upgrade at tight end for years. While Anthony Fasano is no slouch at the position, his production has not met expectations during his tenure with Miami.

    Egnew follows in the footsteps of failed pass-catching tight ends Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker out of Missouri, which does not bode well for him from a historical standpoint. He is similarly sized to those two, but where he sets himself apart is his athleticism.

    The rookie tight end is faster than his predecessor and possesses a big vertical leap and great body control. He is a former receiver as well.

    Plus, it stands to reason Joe Philbin will utilize Egnew better. All in all, he will provide a big pass-catching threat for Miami's quarterback, lining up as the "joker" tight end. He should have a nice year.

     

    Bronze: Orson Charles, Cincinnati Bengals

    Jermaine Gresham may be entrenched as the starter, but Orson Charles will make a nice complement at tight end.

    In a draft many hailed as the best, the biggest impact at rookie might come from Charles. Perhaps taking a cue from the Patriots, the Bengals give Andy Dalton another seam threat in the tight end out of Georgia.

Offensive Tackle

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    Top Performer: Matt Kalil, Minnesota Vikings

    He was the best offensive lineman in the draft, and there is no reason to believe he will not prove that this coming season.

    It is not every day that a franchise left tackle falls into your lap, but not only did that happen to the Vikings—not literally, that would have probably hurt—but they were able to trade down and still get him.

    Charlie Johnson started all 16 games for the Vikings last year after Minnesota got fed up with Bryant McKinnie and cut him. Johnson was the 54th-best rated tackle last season according to Pro Football Focus

    Methinks Kalil will be an improvement.

     

    Second Best: Jonathan Martin, Miami Dolphins

    Another inexplicably falling offensive tackle landed with the Miami Dolphins in the second round, instantly upgrading their situation on the right side.

    Miami had Marc Colombo's corpse playing right tackle last year. Even so, he was an answer to a question—a poor answer, but one nonetheless. Questions abounded about the right side of the offensive line.

    Then Jonathan Martin fell into the second round.

    Landing Martin solidified the right tackle spot, book-ending the position along with Jake Long. Until then, Lydon Murtha was penciled in as the starter. While he performed well in stints last season, he was a questionable answer as a full-fledged starter.

    Write Martin's name in the starting lineup in ink.

     

    Bronze: Riley Reiff, Detroit Lions

    Once considered a top-10 pick, Reiff fell into Detroit's lap at pick No. 23, and the Lions might not be happier.

    The former Hawkeye's stock dropped a bit after a disappointing combine that revealed short arms, but he was still the second offensive tackle taken in the draft. 

    Jeff Backus will be 35 and on the decline at the beginning of the season, and Cherilus Gosder was not terribly inspiring on the other side. Reiff has a good shot at significant playing time.

Offensive Guard

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    Top Performer: David DeCastro, Pittsburgh Steelers

    The rich tend to get richer, and the Steelers did just that when David DeCastro perplexingly—and frustratingly, depending on whether you are a Steelers fan or not—fell out of the top 20 and into their starting lineup.

    DeCastro is so good that some thought he was the No. 3 offensive tackle in the draft, despite not playing that position. Versatility aside, the former Stanford guard will help lock down the middle of the offensive line alongside Maurkice Pouncey—the trio of Doug Legursky, Ramon Foster and Chris Kemoeatu were not up to snuff last season.

    Both Ben Roethlisberger and Isaac Redman will be big beneficiaries of DeCastro's presence on the offensive line, whichever side he takes.

     

    Second Best: Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati Bengals

    Zeitler was just one of several great picks the Bengals made, and he will make a positive impact on that offensive line right away. Nate Livings was one of the worst guards in the league last year, and he's moved on to Dallas, giving Zeitler a good shot to start.

     

    Bronze: Brandon Washington, Philadelphia Eagles

    Perhaps a bit underrated coming out of college, Washington steps into a learning role in Philadelphia. If sophomore Danny Watkins does not put it together, however, Washington could be inserted into the lineup.

Center

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    Top Performer: Philip Blake, Denver Broncos

    Truth be told, none of the centers in this year's class may get a whiff of playing time as rookies. Blake may have the best shot, however.

    J.D. Walton was the worst center in the league by a mile last season according to Pro Football Focus. He allowed four sacks and 15 quarterback pressures, and he was a poor run-blocker.

    His fellow Baylor alumnus Blake might just come and steal his job this preseason.

     

    Second Best: Peter Konz, Atlanta Falcons 

    Todd McClure is no spring Falcon at 35. Atlanta did well to find his future replacement.

    Though the former Badger had some injury concerns that may have contributed to his fall into the second round, he comes from an offense that is known for running the ball.

    That is good news for Michael Turner if Konz can get on the field before Turner's wheels fall off.

     

    Bronze: Ben Jones, Houston Texans 

    In complete contrast with Walton, Chris Myers was the best center in the league last season, and the Texans did well to keep him.

    Jones' only real shot at playing time will be if Myers gets injured, which nobody hopes will happen. Being that there are few other options at center, Jones gets the bronze here by default.

Defensive Tackle

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    Top Performer: Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles

    The Eagles went a long way toward erasing the memory of their ill-fated Dream Team season by having a stellar draft, and it all started with Fletcher Cox.

    Though a bit of an unknown going into the draft process, Cox quickly established himself as the best defensive tackle in the class. The massive lineman is an excellent pass-rusher for the position, giving him leverage for playing time in a passing league.

    Philadelphia has a strong rotation of defensive tackles, but Cox will quickly make his way into heavy usage if he lives up to his potential.

     

    Second Best: Jerel Worthy, Green Bay Packers

    In another case of the rich getting richer, the Packers landed potential first-rounder Worthy in the second round. 

    Worthy will be a huge boost to the Packers' defensive line, a weak point for the defense last year. He brings great pass-rushing ability to the 3-4 defensive end position.

     

    Bronze: Josh Chapman, Indianapolis Colts

    This is a bit of a dark-horse pick considering Chapman is coming off a torn ACL, but he suffered it on October 1 and should be healthy enough to play this year.

    Considering the Colts' defensive tackle foursome was more fearful than fearsome—all four were negatively rated by Pro Football Focus for 2011, with Fili Moala being the fourth-worst in the league—Chapman could find his way to a starting role sooner than later.

    He certainly has the talent to do so. Unfortunately for him—and fortunately for Indianapolis—his knee caused him to fall precipitously in the draft. This will be a boon for the Colts.

Defensive End

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    Top Performer: Andre Branch, Jacksonville Jaguars

    The Jaguars needed to address the defensive end position after telling Matt Roth to seek employment elsewhere. Even with re-signed Jeremy Mincey, Jacksonville mustered just 13 sacks from defensive ends last year.

    Branch is raw, but he should be able to step in and contribute right away simply because he should be the second-best defensive end the Jaguars have.

     

    Second Best: Chandler Jones, New England Patriots

    A hot name on draft day, Chandler Jones found himself so highly touted that Bill Belichick deviated from his modus operandi in recent years and traded up to get him.

    Mike Mayock proclaimed Jones would be the best defensive player to come out of this draft, a bold statement for a guy who had 4.5 sacks as a senior. Call me skeptical, but it is difficult to argue with Mayock or Belichick from where I sit.

    Jones joins a Patriots defense whose best pass-rusher was 32-year-old Andre Carter. He should be given an opportunity to contribute right away on a good rotation.

     

    Bronze: Bruce Irvin, Seattle Seahawks

    In the draft's first head-scratcher, the Seattle Seahawks took Irvin with the 15th overall pick. While he is certainly talented, and the Seahawks needed a pass-rusher to pair with Chris Clemons, guys like Melvin Ingram, Chandler Jones and Quinton Coples were still on the board.

    Though he is lacking against the run, Irvin will immediately play opposite Clemons on passing downs, and he could put up great pass-rushing numbers in the process.

Outside Linebacker

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    Top Performer: Courtney Upshaw, Baltimore Ravens

    Why Upshaw fell so far in the draft is anybody's guess, but he landed with a perennially great defense that suddenly needs him in Baltimore.

    Terrell Suggs ruptured his Achilles tendon, shunting Upshaw into a starting role. The pressure might be on, but Upshaw should be used to that kind of pressure coming from Alabama. He should also have a chip on his shoulder after falling so far down the draft.

     

    Second Best: Lavonte David, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    David represents one of the best fits a draft pick will be for his team. He is an excellent 4-3 outside linebacker, particularly in coverage.

    Geno Hayes and Quincy Black were pretty bad last year. David will come in and compete for playing time right away, and it would not be surprising at all if he finds himself in a starting role sooner than later.

     

    Bronze: Melvin Ingram, San Diego Chargers

    Ingram was arguably the best pure pass-rushing prospect in the draft before Chandler Jones became a hot commodity the week of the draft.

    The Chargers produced 16 sacks from their outside pass-rushers last season, but 11 of those came from Antwan Barnes. Ingram will provide that kind of productivity on the other side, despite having those short arms some teams may have shied away from.

Inside Linebacker

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    Top Performer: Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers

    Kuechly was a tackling machine in college, and he will step right in and do the same for the Panthers.

    There is really little else to say. Kuechly was an excellent pickup for Carolina and should easily be the top producer at the position.

     

     

    Next Best: Mychal Kendricks, Philadelphia Eagles

    Philadelphia had an awful time in the middle last season, particularly at linebacker, where it started undersized and under-talented Casey Matthews. When that did not work out, it went with the ineffective Jamar Chaney.

    Enter Kendricks, just one in a line of excellent picks by the Eagles. Though Kendricks does not have ideal size himself, he is extremely athletic and should provide an immediate upgrade for the Eagles right away.

     

    Bronze: Dont'a Hightower, New England Patriots

    The Patriots continued their Opposite Day first round by moving up again to take Hightower, a bit of a head-scratcher for them considering his lack of athleticism—he is not dissimilar to Brandon Spikes. Hightower should make his way into the rotation, but he will be a two-down player at best.

Safety

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    Top Performer: Mark Barron, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    The Buccaneers needed help at safety, and they got it in the form of big-hitting Mark Barron.

    Tanard Jackson was cut, and Sean Jones is still looking to latch on with a team in free agency—not exactly a ringing endorsement of his talent. 

    Barron will be a major upgrade over both.

    Though a bit of a liability in coverage while at Alabama, Barron was an integral part of the top-ranked defense last year, which should make him a strong safety in the pros. He is a sure tackler with great instincts who will far and away be the biggest producer at his position as a rookie.

     

    Next Best: Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings

    Rick Spielman felt so strongly about drafting the Notre Dame product that he traded back into the first round to get him.

    Tyrell Johnson left for greener pastures in Miami, and Jamarca Sanford was terrible for the Vikings. Smith should win a starting gig with relative ease, especially considering the price Minnesota paid to draft him.

     

    Bronze: George Iloka, Cincinnati Bengals

    The 6'4" thumper out of Boise State has good speed for his size, and he could surprise many by winning a starting gig by the time the season starts. Considering its options, Cincinnati may not have a choice.

Cornerback

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    Top Performer: Morris Claiborne, Dallas Cowboys

    Dallas did not move up to snag Claiborne with the sixth overall pick for nothing.

    The stud cornerback out of LSU was an anchor for that fearsome defense last season, intercepting six passes while leading the Tigers to a championship title game berth. He gave LSU its second Thorpe Award winner in a row—Arizona standout Patrick Peterson won it in 2010—and he may just be better than his predecessor.

    Not only will Claiborne's presence be felt on defense, but the Cowboys could also use him as a kick returner, where he also excelled last season for the Tigers. If they can get what the Cardinals got out of Peterson last year, their special teams unit is in for a treat.

     

    Next Best: Stephon Gilmore, Buffalo Bills

    Buffalo's secondary needed help.

    Their trio at cornerback—Leodis McKelvin, Aaron Williams and Drayton Florence—all allowed a NFL quarterback rating of 100 or above when passes were aimed at their receivers. They combined for five interceptions while allowing 14 touchdowns.

    Gilmore will help stop the bleeding.

    The talented former Gamecock was the second cornerback off the board after a rapid rise leading up to the draft. With the dangerous front four the Bills have built, Gilmore will have his share of opportunities to make plays in the secondary.

     

    Bronze: Janoris Jenkins, St. Louis Rams

    Though some in the draft community called Jenkins the best pure cover corner in the draft, his off-field issues had him tumbling on draft day. Until the Rams threw him a lifeline, that is.

    With all the picks St. Louis acquired in trades, it felt comfortable enough taking a risk on the talented cornerback, who should have an immediate impact opposite free-agent acquisition Cortland Finnegan.

Kickers

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    Top Performer: Greg Zuerlein, St. Louis Rams

    Zuerlein was the second placekicker taken in the draft with the first pick of the sixth round. He will immediately go to work for the Rams, who play indoors, a nice boost for kickers.

    The Missouri Western product nailed 21 kicks in a row last season. Hopefully he can keep that Missouri mojo in St. Louis.

     

    Next Best: Blair Walsh, Minnesota Vikings

    The Vikings have somewhat puzzlingly parted ways with veteran Ryan Longwell despite him being productive for the team over the years.

    Walsh attempted 103 field goals in college but made just 73.5 percent of them. Perhaps playing in a dome will help his accuracy.

     

    Bronze:  Bryan Anger, Jacksonville Jaguars

    After Jacksonville spent an early third-round pick on a punter, Anger had better be a top-performing rookie kicker.

    Nick Harris was 29th in the league with just a 42.7-yard punt average. The Jaguars needed a punter indeed, though perhaps using a later-round pick would have been more prudent.

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